Expedited annulment process focuses on speed, role of local bishops

Pope Francis stresses new reforms “do not favor the nullifying of marriages but the promptness of the processes.”

Vatican City, Sep 8, 2015 / 07:34 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In a revamped marriage annulment process Pope Francis has made some significant changes, giving more of a role to the local bishop, dropping automatic appeals, and declaring the process free of charge.

Announced Tuesday, the new process is aimed at streamlining the system for granting annulments out   of concern “for the salvation of souls” while affirming the longstanding Catholic teaching on marriage indissolubility.

The changes were published in two motu proprio, “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus” (The Lord Jesus, a meek judge), which deals with modifications in the Latin Right’s Code of Canon Law, and “Mitis et misericors Iesus” (Jesus, meek and merciful), which outlines changes for Catholicism’s 23 Eastern Churches who, although in full communion with Rome, have historically had a different process.

Both documents are practically the same, with the main difference being that instead of bishops, “Mitis et misericors Iesu” refers patriarchs and eparchies.

In a brief introduction, Pope Francis stressed that his adjustments “do not favor the nullifying of marriages but the promptness of the processes.”

He said that he decided to make the changes in line with his brother bishops, who during last year’s extraordinary synod on the family called for the process to be “faster and more accessible.”

Many have criticized the current process of obtaining an annulment as being too long, complicated and in some places, too expensive.

Reform was also required due to “the enormous number of faithful who…too often are diverted from juridical structures of the Church due to physical or moral distance,” the Pope said, adding that “charity and mercy” require the Church as mother to draw close to her children who consider themselves far off.

Among the more significant changes the Pope made were dropping the automatic appeal needed after a decision on nullity has been reached, as well as allowing local bishops to make their own judgements on “particularly evident” cases of marriage nullity.

Until now once an annulment was issued by one court it needed to be tried by another, a practice many have blamed for unnecessary delays in the process, particularly in cases when no one contested the results of the first.

With Francis’ new changes, only one sentence will be needed unless an appeal is made. In the case of an appeal, the Pope decided they can now be made in the nearest archdiocese, known as the “metropolitan see,” rather than needing to come to Rome.

He also decided that each diocese throughout the world will have the responsibility to name a judge or church tribunal to process incoming cases.

The bishop can be the only judge, or he can establish 3-member tribunal. If a 3-member tribunal is established, it must have at least one cleric, while the other two members can be laypersons.

Francis has also declared that the annulment process will be free of charge. Although the practice is already in place in many dioceses around the world, the new change makes it universal.

In his introduction, the Pope recognized that the streamlined process, particularly the new procedures surrounding the decisions made by bishops, could raise concern over the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

“It has not escaped me how an abbreviated judgment might put the principle of indissolubility of marriage at risk,” he said.

“Indeed, because of this I wanted that in this process the judge would be composed of the bishop, so that the strength of his pastoral office is, with Peter, the best guarantee of Catholic unity in faith and discipline.”

The Pope also explained that he wanted to offer the new process to bishops so it can be “applied in cases in which the accused nullity of the marriage is sustained by arguments particularly evident.”

Among those presenting the documents were several members of a special commission Pope Francis established a year ago to study the reform of the annulment process.

Speakers included Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Roman Rota; Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; Bishop Dimitrios Salachas, Greek Catholic Apostolic Exarch of Greece; Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Msgr. Alejandro Bunge, prelate auditor of the Roman Rota; and Fr. Nikolaus Schoch, substitute promoter of justice at the Apostolic Signatura.

The changes were signed by the Pope Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, and are set to go into effect Dec. 8, a day marking the feast of the Immaculate Conception as well as the opening day of the Jubilee for Mercy and the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

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